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  1. 1. The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe Copyright Notice ©2011 Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work covered by the copyright hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, Web distribution or information storage retrieval systems without the written permission of the publisher. ©1998-2002; ©2002 by Gale Cengage. Gale is a division of Cengage Learning. Gale and Gale Cengage are trademarks used herein under license. For complete copyright information on these eNotes please visit: eNotes: Table of Contents The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction1. The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography2. The Cask of Amontillado: Summary3. The Cask of Amontillado: Characters4. The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion5. The Cask of Amontillado: Themes6. The Cask of Amontillado: Style7. The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context8. The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview9. The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado♦ Irony in The Cask of Amontillado♦ Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado"♦ Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"♦ "The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies♦ "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity♦ 10. The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast11. The Cask of Amontillado: Topics for Further Study12. The Cask of Amontillado: Media Adaptations13. The Cask of Amontillado: What Do I Read Next?14. The Cask of Amontillado: Bibliography and Further Reading15. The Cask of Amontillado: Pictures16. Copyright17. The Cask of Amontillado 1
  2. 2. The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ was first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, a monthly magazine from Philadelphia that published poems and stories by some of the best American writers of the nineteenth century, including Nathaniel Hawthorne Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The story next appeared in the collection Poe's Works, edited by Rufus W. Griswold, Poe's literary executor, in 1850. By the time Poe wrote this story, he was already nationally known as the author of the poem ‘‘The Raven’’ (1844) and of several short stories collected in a book called, simply, Tales (1845). These earlier stories were widely reviewed and argued over by critics who found them brilliant and disturbing, and their author perplexing and immoral. Although "The Cask of Amontillado'' was not singled out for critical attention when it appeared, it did nothing to change the opinions of Poe's contemporary admirers and detractors. Like Poe's other stories, it has remained in print continuously since 1850. The story is narrated by Montresor, who carries a grudge against Fortunato for an offense that is never explained. Montresor leads a drunken Fortunato through a series of chambers beneath his palazzo with the promise of a taste of Amontillado, a wine that Montresor has just purchased. When the two men reach the last underground chamber, Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall, builds a new wall to seal him in, and leaves him to die. Several sources for the story have been suggested in the last century and a half: Edward Bulwer-Lytton's historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1843); a local Boston legend; a collection of Letters from Italy; and a real quarrel Poe had with two other poets. Wherever Poe got the idea and the impetus for ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ this story and Poe's other short fiction had an undisputed influence on later fiction writers. In the nineteenth century, Poe influenced Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson among others. Twentieth-century writers who have looked to Poe include science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft and horror author Stephen King. According to Vincent Buranelli, Poe's short stories also influenced the music of Claude Debussy, who was "haunted" by the atmosphere of Poe's tales, and the art of Aubrey Beardsley, as well as the work of other composers and artists in the United States, Great Britain, and in Europe. Poe was criticized in his own time for daring to examine a crime with no apparent motive, and a murderer with no apparent remorse. For one hundred and fifty years, these themes have continued to challenge readers, who are attracted and repulsed by Poe's creation. The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography Edgar Allan Poe's early life was as strange and unhappy as some of his most famous fiction. When he was born in Boston in 1809, his parents were actors in traveling companies; his father died in 1810 and his mother in 1811. Edgar and his sister and brother were left penniless, and Edgar was taken in by a Virginia merchant, John Allan, whose last name Edgar took as his middle name. Poe lived with the Allans in England from 1815 to 1820 and attended school there. His relationship with Allan was strained, because Allan was rather heartless and unsympathetic to his wife and foster son. When Poe began studies at the University of Virginia, the wealthy Allan refused to help support him, and Poe turned to gambling, with little success. The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction 2
  3. 3. Edgar Allan Poe After a short time at the University, Poe moved to Boston and began his career as a writer. In 1827 he published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, at his own expense, but found few readers. These early poems were heavily influenced by the Romantic poets. His first paid publication was the short story ‘‘MS. Found in a Bottle’’ (1833), which drew the attention of a publisher who admired his work and who got him an editorial job. He soon lost the job because of his drinking. Shortly afterwards, in 1836, he married his cousin Virginia Clemm, who was thirteen years old. During the eleven years of his marriage to Virginia, Poe had a series of publishing successes and personal failures. He moved his family to New York and Philadelphia and back again, editing and contributing to various magazines. He published several short horror stories and narrative poems, including "The Murders in the Rue Morgue'' (1841), one of the earliest detective stories ever written, the psychological horror story "The Tell-Tale Heart'' (1843), and the melancholy poem ‘‘The Raven’’ (1845), which brought him national fame. His brilliance as a writer was now firmly established. Still, he could not escape his addiction to alcohol. Virginia Poe, wife of Edgar Allan Poe In 1846, after losing a series of editorships, Poe retreated with his wife to a cottage in Fordham, outside New York City, where they nearly starved. There Poe wrote ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ its gloomy and cynical tone echoing Poe's own feelings. The Poe biographer William Bittner claims that the two characters in the story "are two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ A few months later Virginia died of tuberculosis, and Poe became despondent. He wrote several important pieces during this time, The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography 3
  4. 4. but though he tried again to give up drinking, he never succeeded. He died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, at the age of forty, after an alcoholic episode. The Cask of Amontillado: Summary "The Cask of Amontillado" was first published in 1846. The first-person narrator, Montresor, is unreliable and is attempting to explain his actions of 50 years before. The story begins with Montresor addressing someone familiar, who knows the "nature of my soul." He explains that he had borne "the thousand injuries of Fortunato," but finally Fortunato went too far, and he devised a plan for revenge. Fortunato does not suspect Montresor's plan. In fact, when they meet in the street during carnival, Fortunato is very glad to see him. Fortunato is dressed like a jester, and has been drinking. Throughout the story, Montresor exploits Fortunato's interest in wine. First, he tempts Fortunato by claiming he has purchased a cask of Amontillado, which is a dry sherry, but he is unsure if its authentic. Instead of asking Fortunato directly to examine the Amontillado, Montresor says he will ask another because Fortunato is busy, thereby playing upon both Fortunato's pride and greed. Fortunato agrees to accompany Montresor home, where the servants have all gone to enjoy the festivities. Montresor grabs two torches and leads the way into the family catacombs, which are lined with nitre and cause Fortunato to cough. Montresor says they will go back, but Fortunato wants to see the Amontillado, claiming, "I shall not die of a cough," to which Montresor replies, "True—true." While they walk deeper into the catacombs, Montresor describes his family's coat of arms and motto, which is "Nemo me impune lacessit," or "No one insults me with impunity." They also consume more wine. When Fortunato makes a secret sign of the masons, Montresor does not understand. Fortunato asks him for a sign he is of the masons, and Montresor produces a trowel from his cloak. Although Fortunato seems to be confused, he still wants to see the Amontillado, and they continue deeper into the tombs. At the end of the crypt, there is a room lined with bones, with a pile of bones on one side. Fortunato, looking for the cask, steps into a small interior recess, and Montresor quickly chains him to the wall, taunting him with all the opportunities he had allowed for Fortunato to back out. Fortunato, in shock, can't comprehend what is happening as Montresor uses the trowel and stone and mortar buried under the pile of bones to wall up the crypt. Fortunato comes to his senses and begins to moan and test the chains. Montresor waits until Fortunato stops shaking the chains, then continues boarding up the crypt. He raises the torch to look inside, and Fortunato begins screaming. Montresor is shocked, and unsheathes his sword, afraid Fortunato's screams will be heard. But reassuring himself of the solid walls of the catacombs, he also begins to yell, louder than Fortunato. After this, "the clamourer grew still." The Cask of Amontillado: Summary 4
  5. 5. View of casks or barrels of wine aging in an underground cellar Nearing midnight, Montresor is nearly finished the wall. When there is only one more stone to be added, Fortunato begins to laugh, and says in a sad voice that he has enjoyed Montresor's joke, but it is time to be getting back to the palazzo, where his wife and others are waiting. "Let us be gone," Fortunato says, and Montresor repeats, "Yes…let us be gone." At this, Fortunato realizes Montresor is serious, and says, "For the love of God, Montresor!" Again, Montresor repeats, "Yes…for the love of God." Fortunato grows quiet at this. Although Montresor calls out to him, he hears only the sad jingling of the bells on Fortunato's jester's cap. Montresor says his heart grew sick at that sound, but explains the "dampness of the catacombs made it so." He hurriedly finishes the wall, placing the pile of bones in front. Lastly, he states, "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them," ending with, "In pace requiescat," or "May he rest in peace." Alternate Summary As the story opens, an unnamed narrator explains, ‘‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’’ There is no hint as to whom the narrator is speaking or writing, and the "thousand injuries'' and the "insult'' committed by Fortunato are never described. Nevertheless, the narrator contemplates his desire for revenge and his plan to "not only punish, but punish with impunity''; that is, to punish Fortunato without being caught or punished himself. Furthermore, he is determined not to act in secrecy, for Fortunato must know that his pain is handed to him by Montresor. Fortunato has no idea that Montresor is angry with him—Montresor has given no hint of it. When Montresor encounters his "friend'' on the street one evening during the carnival season, Fortunato has no reason to be suspicious. Montresor asks Fortunato to come with him and sample a large cask of Amontillado, a type of wine, which Montresor has just purchased. Fortunato is justifiably proud of his ability to recognize good wines, and he is already drunk. He is easily persuaded to follow his friend, especially when Montresor assures him that if Fortunato cannot sample the wine for him, another man, Luchesi, will surely do it. Montresor and Fortunato, who is dressed in his carnival costume of striped clothing and a conical jester's cap with bells, go to Montresor's palazzo. Conveniently, the servants are away enjoying the carnival, and no one sees them enter. They descend a long, winding staircase to the wine cellar and catacombs, the dark and damp tunnels and caverns beneath the palazzo where generations of Montresors have been laid to rest. As they walk on, they pass piles of bones and piles of wine casks, intermingled in the passageways. Montresor fusses over Fortunato's health and his schedule, knowing that the more he suggests Fortunato give up the quest, the more his companion will be determined to see it through. As they walk along, the men converse in an idle way, about the potentially hazardous nitre forming on the walls, and the coat of arms of the Montresor family. To protect Fortunato from the damp, Montresor gives The Cask of Amontillado: Summary 5
  6. 6. him drinks of two wines that are stored in the catacombs. When Fortunato reveals himself to be a member of the Masons, Montresor pulls a trowel from beneath his cape and declares that he, too, is a mason. Always Fortunato is pulled forward by the promise of the Amontillado. Eventually they reach the last chamber, a crypt nearly full of piled bones with only a small alcove of empty space within. When Fortunato steps to the back to look for the Amontillado, Montresor quickly chains him to two iron staples fastened to the wall. He uncovers a pile of building stones concealed beneath some of the bones and begins to build a wall, sealing Fortunato in. As Fortunato recovers from his drunkenness and becomes aware of what is happening to him, he cries out for mercy, but Montresor pays no attention. He still refuses to speak of the offenses that have brought him to the point of murder, and Fortunato does not ask why Montresor is ready to kill him. Montresor finishes his wall and piles bones up against it, leaving Fortunato to die. In the last lines, Montresor the actor is replaced again by Montresor the narrator, who began the story. Now he reveals that the murder happened fifty years before. In Latin he speaks over Fortunato's body: ‘‘Rest in Peace.’’ The Cask of Amontillado: Characters Fortunato Fortunato is an Italian friend of Montresor's, and his sworn enemy, whom Montresor has planned to ‘‘punish with impunity. ‘‘Although Montresor's explains that Fortunato has committed a "thousand injuries’’ and a final "insult," no details of these offenses are given. Fortunato displays no uneasiness in Montresor's company, and is unaware that his friend is plotting against him. Fortunato, a respected and feared man, is a proud connoisseur of fine wine, and, at least on the night of the story, he clouds his senses and judgment by drinking too much of it. He allows himself to be led further and further into the catacombs by Montresor, stepping past piles of bones with no suspicion. He is urged on by the chance of sampling some rare Amontillado, and by his unwillingness to let a rival, Luchesi, have the pleasure of sampling it first. His singlemindedness, combined with his drunkenness, leads him to a horrible death. Luchesi Luchesi is an acquaintance of Montresor's and Fortunato's, and another wine expert. He never appears in the story, but Montresor keeps Fortunato on the trail of the Amontillado by threatening to allow Luchesi to sample it first if Fortunato is not interested. Montresor Montresor is the "I" who narrates the story, telling an unseen listener or reader about his killing of Fortunato fifty years before. Montresor is a wealthy man from an established family, who lives in a large "palazzo'' with a staff of servants. He speaks eloquently and easily drops Latin and French phrases into his speech. He has been nursing a grudge against his friend Fortunato, who has committed several unnamed offenses against him, and has been coldly planning his revenge. Meeting Fortunato in the street one evening, Montresor takes this opportunity to lure his friend into the deepest catacombs beneath his palazzo, and there he chains Fortunato to the wall of a small alcove, seals him in behind a new brick wall which he builds even as Fortunato begs for mercy, and leaves him to die. Montresor's coldness sets him apart from many murderous characters and many Poe protagonists. Even as he tells the story fifty years later, he reveals no regret for his actions, and no real pleasure in them. This lack of feeling made Poe's early readers uncomfortable, and led some to accuse Poe of immorality in creating such a character. The Cask of Amontillado: Characters 6
  7. 7. The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion "The Cask of Amontillado" is a story of revenge, but the reader is never told exactly what Fortunato did to warrant such vengeance. In fact, throughout the story, the reader gradually realizes that Montresor is an unreliable narrator; that whatever insult Montresor believes Fortunato committed is probably imagined or exaggerated. It's certain that Fortunato has no idea of Montresor's anger, and this makes the story even more tragic and frightening. The seemingly happy jangling of the bells on the top of Fortunato's cap become more and more sad the deeper the two venture into the catacombs. In the beginning of the story, Montresor defines revenge. He says he must "punish with impunity." He states if the avenger is caught, or does not make the punishment known to he who committed the wrong, the wrong goes unavenged. With this in mind, he sets the trap for Fortunato. He gives Fortunato numerous opportunities to back out, using the tricks of classic conmen by playing on Fortunato's greed and pride. In fact, it is Fortunato who insists they carry on to find the Amontillado, and this will no doubt torture him as he is buried alive. Montresor also provides hints as to what he plans to do with Fortunato. He seemingly miraculously comes up with a cask of Amontillado during carnival, which Fortunato can scarcely believe. He tells Fortunato, "You are a man to be missed," and after Fortunato says he won't die of a cough, Montresor agrees. His family motto is "No one insults me with impunity" and he is carrying a trowel. Yet Fortunato suspects nothing, and is so shocked when Montresor chains him to the wall, he doesn't even try to fight. The structure of the story places the events 50 years in the past. Montresor, perhaps on his own deathbed, is telling someone, perhaps a priest, the story, but not with any remorse. He still believes Fortunato wronged him, and at the end eerily says "In pace requiescat," or "May he rest in peace." The Cask of Amontillado: Themes Revenge The force that drives Montresor to commit the horrible murder of Fortunato is his powerful desire for revenge. His first words in the story speak of it: ‘‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’’ The idea of revenge is repeated several times in the opening paragraph. Montresor will not rush to act, he says, but ‘‘at length I would be avenged''; he is determined to "not only punish, but punish with impunity.’’ The terms of the revenge are quite clear in Montresor's mind. He will not feel fully revenged unless Fortunato realizes that his punishment comes at Montresor's hand; a wrong is not redressed "when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’’ In seeking revenge, Montresor is acting out the motto of his people, as it appears on the family coat of arms, Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one wounds me with impunity’’). As countless critics have pointed out, the nature of the injuries and offenses is never revealed. Montresor appears to be telling or writing his story to someone who has more knowledge than Poe's reader (‘‘You, who so well know the nature of my soul’’), and who may be assumed to know something of Fortunato's conduct before the fateful night. Unlike Montresor's audience, however, Poe's audience/reader has no basis for judging the extent to which Montresor's actions are reasonable. The focus, therefore, is not on the reason for revenge, but on the revenge itself, not on why Montresor behaves as he does but only on what he does. Just as Montresor does not reveal his motive for the crime, other than to identify it as a crime of revenge, neither does he share with his audience his response when the deed is done. Does Montresor feel better once Fortunato has paid for his insult? Does he feel vindicated? Does he go back to his rooms and celebrate the death of his enemy, or smile inwardly years later when he remembers how he was able to ‘‘punish with The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion 7
  8. 8. impunity’’? He does not say. Nineteenth-century audiences scanned the story for hints of negative feelings. Is Montresor sorry for committing murder? Does he regret his actions? As he nears the end of his life does he look to God for forgiveness? Again, there is no hint or perhaps only the barest of hints. Poe's intention is to focus his story tightly. He does not explore the events leading up to the crime, nor the results of the crime, but focuses the story narrowly on the act of revenge itself. Atonement and Forgiveness Although the action of the story revolves almost entirely around the deception and killing of Fortunato, the questions in readers' minds have revolved around Fortunato's thoughts and deeds before the crime, and Montresor's thoughts and deeds afterward. While the time between their chance meeting and the laying of the last stone would have taken only five or six hours, the fifty years following are perhaps more intriguing. Is Montresor deceiving himself or his audience when he attributes his momentary sickness to ‘‘the dampness of the catacombs'' ? What has happened to Montresor over the intervening years, and why is he telling the story now? Is he hoping for forgiveness? For forgiveness to occur, there must first be guilt and then atonement or remorse. Of course, there is no question of Montresor asking forgiveness of Fortunato, or reconciling with him, and no mention is given of Montresor's paying any reparations to Lady Fortunato. Atonement, if there is to be any, must be with God alone. At the time of the murder, however, Montresor hears and rejects Fortunato's appeal that he stop ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor!’’ The murderer replies, ‘‘Yes, for the love of God!'' but he does not stop building his wall. Surely he does not mean that he is acting for the love of God; instead, he is blatantly and defiantly rejecting it. In other ways Poe keeps the idea of the Christian God in the foreground. Fortunato is chained to the wall in a standing position that some critics have compared to the posture of the crucified Jesus. His narrow space behind the wall echoes Jesus's placement in a tomb. The story's last words, In pace requiescat (Rest in peace), are taken from the Roman Catholic funeral ritual spoken in Latin. Critic John Gruesser believes that Montresor tells the story of his crime ‘‘as he presumably lies on his deathbed, confessing his crime to an old friend, the 'You' of the story's first paragraph who is perhaps his priest.'' Clearly Montresor's guilt is established as not just an earthly legal guilt, but guilt in the eyes of a God that both victim and murderer recognize. The question remains: Was Montresor ever sorry for what he did? Poe does not appear interested in answering the question, although he surely knew that he was raising it, and knew that he had placed the answer tantalizingly out of reach. The Cask of Amontillado: Style Point of View and Narrator "The Cask of Amontillado'' is told in the first person by Montresor, who reveals in the first sentence that he intends to have revenge from Fortunato. He tells the story to an unidentified "you, who so well know the nature of my soul,’’ but this "you" does not appear to respond in any way as Montresor delivers a long monologue. The most striking thing about Montresor's voice, in fact, is its uninterrupted calm and confidence. He tells the story from beginning to end with no diversion, no explanation, and no emotion. If he is gleeful at gaining his revenge, or if he feels guilty about his crime, he does not speak of it directly, and his language does not reveal it. Even at the most terrifying moment in the story, when Fortunato realizes that Montresor intends to seal him up behind a wall, the narrator is calm and detached: "I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low mourning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth.’’ The Cask of Amontillado: Themes 8
  9. 9. By presenting the story in the first person, Poe avoids hinting at any interpretation of the action. Montresor is in control, deciding what to tell and what to leave out. A third-person narrator, even a limited narrator who could not see into the minds and hearts of the characters, would have presented a more balanced story. An objective narrator telling a terrible story objectively might be frightening, but even more frightening is a man telling without emotion the story of his own terrible crime. Setting The setting of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ has attracted a great deal of critical attention, because both the location and the time of the story are only vaguely hinted at. To bring touches of the exotic to his murky atmosphere, Poe freely combines elements of different nations and cultures. Fortunato and Luchesi are Italians, knowledgeable about Italian wines. Montresor, as argued convincingly by Richard Benton and others, is a Frenchman. Amontillado is a Spanish wine. Montresor's family motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, is the motto of the royal arms of Scotland. Sprinkled among the Latin motto and other Latin phrases are references to Montresor's palazzo, his roquelaire, his rapier, and his flambeaux. If Poe's readers could not be expected to identify the nationality of each element, so much the better for creating the impression that the story happens "in another place and time.’’ The time of the story may be guessed at. Montresor's short cape and rapier, the slightly formal vocabulary, and the torches used to light the men's way seem to indicate that the story takes place in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Scholars tracing the family name of Montresor and the history of laws governing the Mardi Gras carnivals in France have placed the date of the murder more precisely; John Randall III and others believe the murder occurs in 1796, while Benton argues for 1787-88. Gothicism Poe is often considered a master of the Gothic tale, and ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ contains many of the standard elements of Gothicism. Gothic stories are typically set in medieval castles and feature mystery, horror, violence, ghosts, clanking chains, long underground passages, and dark chambers. The term "Gothic'' originally referred to the Goths, an ancient and medieval Germanic tribe, but over time the word came to apply to anything medieval. The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole' s Castle of Otranto (1764), was set in a medieval castle, and later works that attempted to capture the same setting or atmosphere were labeled "Gothic.'' Poe was fascinated with the materials and devices of the Gothic novel, although he preferred to work in the short story form. He was a great admirer of Walpole, and of the American Gothic writer Charles Brockden Brown."The Cask of Amontillado’’ takes many details from the Gothic tradition: the palazzo of the Montresors with its many rooms, the archway that leads to the ‘‘long and winding staircase’’ down to the catacombs, the damp and dark passageway hanging with moss and dripping moisture, the piles of bones, the flaming torches that flicker and fade, and the "clanking'' and "furious vibrations of the chain'' that Montresor uses to bind Fortunato to the wall. The overall atmosphere of brooding and horror also come from this tradition. Some elements of the Gothic, however, Poe intentionally avoided: there is no hint in "The Cask of Amontillado,'' or in most of his horror stories, of the supernatural. Poe was quite clear on this point, explaining that the plot of a short story "may be involved, but it must not transcend probability. The agencies introduced must belong to real life.’’ Montresor's crime is terrible, but it is believable, and it is committed without magic or superhuman power. Although there may be a hint of the supernatural in his remark that ‘‘for the half of a century no mortal has disturbed'' the pile of bones outside Fortunato's tomb, those beings that might not be mortal are not described, and indeed Fortunato does not reappear as a ghost or a vampire or a zombie. Poe uses Gothic conventions to create an atmosphere of terror, but then subverts the convention by using only human agents for terrible deeds. For Poe, it is not supernatural beings that people should fear; the real horror lies in what human beings themselves are capable of. The Cask of Amontillado: Style 9
  10. 10. The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context The Short Story Although there have been stories as long as there have been people to tell them, many critics trace the beginnings of the short story as a genre of written prose literature consciously developed as an art form to the nineteenth century. Previously in the West there had been great ages of epics memorized or extemporized orally, narrative poetry, drama, and the novel, but it was not until the early 1800s that critics began to describe the short story as a specific art form with its own rules and structures. In Europe, Honore de Balzac and others were already writing and theorizing about the new form. An early American voice in the discussion was Poe's. In 1842 he wrote a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842), a collection of thirty-nine brief stories and sketches, many dealing with the supernatural. In his influential review, Poe delineated the differences, as he saw them, between poetry, the novel and the ‘‘short prose narrative.’’ Rhymed poetry, according to Poe, was the highest of the genres. But the ‘‘tale proper,’’ he claimed, ‘‘affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose.'' The novel was inferior because it could not be read in one sitting, therefore making it impossible to preserve a ‘‘unity of effect or impression.’’ The ideal short story, one that could be read in thirty minutes to two hours, was created to produce one single effect. If a writer's "very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.’’ Poe praised Hawthorne and Washington Irving for their skill with the new form, and kept firmly to the goal of the ‘‘single effect’’ in his own fiction. For this reason, his prose is almost exclusively in the short story form, and he limited each story to a small number of characters, simple plots, small geographical areas, and short time frames, as demonstrated in "The Cask of Amontillado.'' National Literature In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a great call for Americans to develop a national literature, by which was meant a body of works written by Americans, published by Americans, and dealing with particularly American characters, locales, and themes. The United States was still a young country, and most American readers and writers looked to Europe for great books and great authors, as well as for literary forms and themes. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave an influential address titled ‘‘The American Scholar,’’ in which he called upon Americans to combine the best of European ideas with a determined self-knowledge, to create the new American intellectual who would best be able to lead the nation. Writers and publishers hoped that a national call for a national literature would create a stronger market for their products, which were being outsold by European imports. Poe, although he had the same difficulty supporting himself through writing as his contemporaries, did not whole-heartedly embrace the movement. On the one hand, his published criticism and reviews railed against writers who wrote mere imitations of popular European writers. But neither did he approve of writing that was too patriotic, that offered cliched praise of the United States with little artistic merit. He was also critical of those who praised inferior work simply because it was American. Like Emerson, Poe believed in using elements from Europe if they were useful artistically, and he believed that international settings helped establish universality. Still, he called upon American writers to use their imaginations to produce original and vital works. In ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ therefore, he used a European setting to create his exotic and murky atmosphere, but within the structure of the new and distinctly American short story form. The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview When it appeared in the monthly magazine Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, "The Cask of Amontillado,'' like most short stories published in locally distributed magazines, attracted no special critical attention. A year The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context 10
  11. 11. earlier, Poe had published a collection of Tales, which had been widely reviewed. Most of these reviews were favorable, praising Poe's powers of imagination and control of language. George Colton's review in the American Whig Review was typical in heralding the volume's "most undisputable marks of intellectual power and keenness; and an individuality of mind and disposition, of peculiar intensity.'' A few were not only negative but scathing, including Charles Dana's review in the Brook Farm Harbinger in which he describes Poe's stories as "clumsily contrived, unnatural, and every way in bad taste.'' Significantly, the collection of tales was read and reviewed in all parts of the country, and helped bring Poe to a much larger audience than he had previously enjoyed. After Poe's death in 1849, his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold wrote an obituary in the New York Tribune, in which he slanderously exaggerated Poe's weaknesses. He described Poe as a ‘‘shrewd and naturally unamiable character'' who "walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses.’’ The following year, Griswold published an edition of Poe's Works. In response to the two Griswold projects came a flurry of writing about Poe, much of it praising the writing but condemning the writer. Typical was an unsigned 1858 review in the Edinburgh Review: "Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.’’ Over the next fifty years, negative writing about Poe focused on his moral character, as presented by Griswold, more than it focused on his work. Critics seemed unable to move beyond the general observation that Poe led a troubled life and wrote troubling stories. Although critics and scholars continued to read and examine Poe's short stories, and although French and German writers continued to admire Poe, his reputation and importance declined throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the public's distaste had worn off, and critics were able to write more objectively about Poe's achievements. In the early third of the century, Poe was widely praised for his poetry, but Gothicism had fallen out of favor and his stories were dismissed by such writers as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Though the poem "The Raven'' had been examined individually from its first publication, "The Cask of Amontillado'' had to wait until the 1930s to have critical articles devoted to it. In the 1930s and 1940s, critics focused on tracing Poe's sources, arguing that Poe borrowed his plot from other nineteenth-century writers, a murder case in Boston, a literary quarrel from his own life, or other sources. Writers in the 1990s returned to the question of sources as a way of revealing Poe's intentions. Richard Benton is among those who suggest that the story can be read as historical fiction, based on real historical figures and addressing social class issues of interest to nineteenth-century Americans. Other critics at mid-century were concerned with exploring the significance of details in the story that readers might not be expected to understand without explanation. Kathryn Montgomery Harris in Studies in Short Fiction (1969) and James E. Rocks in the Poe Newsletter (1972) analyzed the conflict in the story between the Roman Catholic Montresor and Fortunato, a Mason. Rocks concluded that Montresor kills Fortunato because "he must protect God's word and His Church against His enemies.’’ Other writers in the same period explored the significance of the names "Montresor,'' "Fortunato," and "Amontillado." The largest body of criticism of the story has examined Montresor's remorse or lack or remorse for his crime. Daniel Hoffman, in his Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe agrees with many others that Montresor is consumed by guilt."Has not Montresor walled up himself in this revenge? Of what else can he think, can he have thought for the past half-century, but of that night's vengeance upon his enemy?’’ Others find no hint of guilt in Montresor, leading some early readers to reject the story as immoral. Bettina Knapp places "The Cask of Amontillado’’ among Poe's ‘‘shadow tales,’’ which do not ‘‘offer values. No judgmental forces are at work. Crime is neither a negative nor a positive act. Poe's psychopaths do not distinguish between good and evil, nor do they usually feel remorse or guilt.'' This issue has become the central critical question for ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’ The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview 11
  12. 12. The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allen Poe, the master of the macabre, understood the fine line between good and evil, between the holy and the profane. He knew how to penetrate the subconscious of his readers by subtly playing off of their most deeply held beliefs. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe brilliantly interweaves religion into a dark tale of revenge. The effect is a once profound and haunting. The story is told as a first-person confession, possibly to a priest “who so well knew the nature of my soul.” The language is ripe with religious overtones. The action implies a death march, a procession to death designed to avenge insults suffered by Montresor and his ancestors. The drinking of wine, the ringing of bells, and the lighting of candles are all part of Montresor’s “black mass”. Fortunado, the unwittingly victim, becomes the sacrifice in a wholly un-Christian ceremony. Poe carefully selects language that resounds of sacramental rites. Montresor admits that when he first smiles at Fortunado’s arrival, it “was at the thought of his immolation.” (A Latin-derived word, immolation means to kill as a sacrifice and carries strong religious connotations.) Montresor’s language designates him as the executor of divine punishment or retribution. His motivation, which can be interpreted as a heavy-handed perversion of the Golden Rule, is clear: “[A wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” Poe often uses foreign expressions with religious overtones. As is common in Roman Catholic masses, Montresor utters Latin phrases: “In pace requiescat!”(Rest in peace) and “Nemo me impune lacessit.”(No one punishes me with impunity.) The wine that lures Fortunado to his death, Amontillado (which means from the mountain in Italian) recalls Moses’ trek up Mt. Sinai and the God-given laws that came to be as a result. The primary action of the story recalls Jesus Christ’s procession to Calvary, the place of his crucifixion. We follow Fortunado on his long and arduous procession down through Montresor’s family’s catacombs. The journey into darkness passes by the bones of Montresor’s ancestors, as Christ had done when he passed Golgotha (place of skulls) before his death. The walk is slow, deliberate and difficult for Fortunado as was Christ’s walk through Jerusalem. Fortunado leans on Montresor desperately as he walks down the narrow passageways. We are reminded of the times when Christ required assistance along the route to meet his pre-ordained fate. The centrality of wine to the story directs the reader again to a religious theme. The very title of the story expresses the importance of the sometimes-sacred beverage. In fact, Montresor explicitly says Fortunado’s weakness is that, “He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.” Montresor depends on this hubris to lure Fortunado into what would eventually become his tomb. When Fortunado toasts Montresor over a draught of Medoc wine it becomes a Last Supper-like toast before a crucifixion. Poe twists the ordinarily sacred significance of wine to consecrate a sadistic ritual celebrating Montresor’s cruel revenge. As they do during the blessing of the Holy Communion in a Christian mass, bells ring at key points throughout the story. They take on a sinister and ghostly tone as Montresor nears the completion of the ritual. “I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” This critical moment comes near the end of the story and precedes what may be considered Montresor’s only inclination of guilt “My heart grew sick.” Though he quickly attributes this feeling to the dampness of the vault, it clearly indicates the finality that the jingling of the bells symbolize. The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism 12
  13. 13. Poe also skillfully fills the story with allusions to darkness and light. The vault has presumably become a place of such evil that no amount of light can penetrate its darkness. The flambeaux are themselves reminiscent of the lighting of candles at Catholic masses. When they come to the end of the catacombs Montresor notes: “The foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.” The flickering light, usually symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit, instead burns more like the eerie fires of hell. Montresor’s ritual of revenge is performed with the careful deliberation of a sacred mass. Poe perverts every holy ritual into a macabre ceremony of death. Even the apparently benign relationship between Montresor and Fortunado is entirely ironic and saccharine sweet. Like Judas kissing Christ at the Last Supper, Montresor ventures to betray Fortunado while acting as a friend. The parody of religious ritual coils around the story and threads each word together into a pattern of demonic significance. No matter the insult suffered by Montresor, there can be no doubt that he is the architect of a cruel revenge and the priest of a wicked black mass. Irony in The Cask of Amontillado There has never been any doubt or disagreement about the fact that Edgar Allen Poe is a master of the short story form. His painstaking word selection, his attention to every detail, his obsession over creating a single powerful effect—these qualities have all justifiably contributed to this reputation. Nowhere is his craftsmanship, or his expert use of irony as a unifying element, more apparent than in his short masterpiece, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Unity in theme, plot, and structure are all elements that were impeccably incorporated in The Cask of Amontillado. In the first sentence we are given the singular and simple theme: Montresor’s revenge. The plot of the story revolves tightly around the execution of his betrayal and retribution against Fortunado. And ultimately, all of these elements are sewn together and given their final meaning through the pervasive use of irony. There are two categories of irony in The Cask of Amontillado, the ironies that Montresor manipulates and controls in the story, and the ironies that the author creates. As the story progresses we come to realize that, though Montresor is the main voice in the story, Poe subtly provides clues that bring us closer to understanding the truth behind Montresor’s words. The first obvious irony is the fact that Montresor made sure that his servants would be gone by ordering them to stay. The use of reverse psychology is rampant throughout the story and demonstrates how perverted and backwards all of the relationships in the story have become. Because Montresor is the narrator, we are aware of the duplicity between what he is thinking, versus what he says: “Come, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was.” Montresor is obviously biting his tongue as he says these words, but does so amiably. He also drops a subtle hint (“as I once was”) about his true feelings of humiliation that are at the root of his vengeance. Montresor has carefully planned this elaborate ceremony, which has elements of a Christian mass, but is macabre and evil. He toasts to Fortunado’s good health and long life over a glass of wine, which is usually a blessing. However Montresor and the audience are well aware that his intentions couldn’t be further from his words. Every word of discourse between the two men is given a grave double meaning with the knowledge of Montresor’s intent. He reassures Fortunado that he “will not die of a cough”, and is continually urging Fortunado not to go down into the vaults. Every plea to go back is actually a prodding downwards into the crypt. Montresor understands he will go in spite of those pleas and, in fact counts on Fortunado’s hubris in his connoisseurship of wines to lure him into his tomb. Montresor baits him by asking him whether a “pipe of Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado 13
  14. 14. Amontillado” sherry he had recently purchased is the genuine article. But we find out early on that Montresor opportunistically views Fortunado’s love of wines as a “weakness” to be exploited. While Montresor is quite pleased with his clever plan, he has left himself open for criticism by candidly sharing his intimate thoughts. He incidentally provides us with two main criteria by which to judge the success or failure of his revenge. The first criterion is: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity.” Impunity is defined as “exemption from punishment.” Montresor has to punish Fortunado without condemning himself. He retells the story with a tone of pride, but given that it is fifty years after the murder, it seems likely that the monologue is a more of a confession than a boast. Furthermore, if he is confessing to repent for the sin, the pleasure he takes in the relating the details of the crime contravenes the confession. So either way, he has not punished with “impunity”. The second criterion is: “[A wrong] is unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” To successfully attain retribution, Montresor must make Fortunado understand the nature of the wrong he perpetrated. But Fortunado never knows why he is walled up, and even thinks it’s a joke. He certainly dies quickly after being entombed and since one cannot further harm the dead, Montresor has failed to avenge the insult he had suffered. The greatest irony in The Cask of Amontillado is the dramatic irony created by the fact that Montresor is telling, or retelling, the story to someone “who so well knows the true nature of my [Montresor] soul.” The structure of the story seems to be a confession, told fifty years after the actual event. Though we are told the story through Montresor’s voice, the use of irony provides us with insight to the double meanings behind the tale. Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado" When Montresor decides that it is time to seek revenge for the ‘‘thousand injuries of Fortunato,’’ he does not make his feelings known. Although the honor code of the day might have called for a public challenge and a duel to the death, Montresor decides that he will not give "utterance to a threat.'' Instead, while he waits for his opportunity, he behaves as though nothing is wrong: ‘‘It must be understood, that neither by word not deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good-will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.'' The word for Montresor's behavior is "duplicitous." It means that he is concealing his true motives and feelings beneath a deceptive exterior, that he is being two-faced. The word, of course, is related to "duplicate" and "duplex" and ‘‘double.’’ Montresor is behaving as his own opposite in his dealings with Fortunato. As the story progresses, however, it will become clearer that the other side of Montresor's personality is not the smiling face he offers to Fortunato. The story is filled with twins and opposites. The characters' names, for example, bounce off each other, two echoes of the same idea. The name "Montresor" carries the idea of "treasure," and "Fortunato" implies "fortune." Two sides of the same coin, as it were. As the two men walk along the damp passageway, Montresor offers Fortunato two bottles of wine: Medoc, thought to have medicinal powers and promising to ‘‘defend us from the damps,’’ and De Grave, a wine whose name means ‘‘of the grave.’’ Just afterward, Fortunato makes a "gesticulation," a secret gesture that demonstrates that he is a member of the Free and Accepted Masons, a secret fraternal order. In a scene that calls to mind nothing so much as Harpo Marx, Montresor produces a trowel from beneath his cloak, a sign that he, too, is a mason but of a different, deadly variety. Irony in The Cask of Amontillado 14
  15. 15. As the story opens, the men seem more different than alike. Montresor is cold, calculating, sober in every sense of the word. Fortunato greets him with "excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much.’’ Montresor wears a black mask, a short cloak and a rapier or sword, the very image of a distinguished gentleman. Fortunato, on the other hand, is dressed for "the supreme madness of the carnival season’’ in motley, the jester's costume, complete with ‘‘tight-fitting parti-striped’’ clothing and a pointed cap with jingling bells at the tip. A drunken man with bells on his hat seems no match for Montresor, and it is hard to imagine Fortunato as ‘‘a man to be respected, and even feared’’ as he sways and staggers and fixates on the prospect of tasting more wine, the Amontillado. Montresor continues his duplicity. He suggests that Luchesi could taste the wine instead of Fortunato, knowing that the suggestion will make Fortunato all the more eager to taste it himself. He repeatedly fusses over Fortunato's health, proposing that they ought to turn back before the foul air makes his "friend'' ill, when in fact he intends that Fortunato will never leave the catacombs alive. He emphasizes the ways in which they are opposites: ‘‘You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter.'' Up to this point, even the conversation between the two establishes their different purposes. Looking over Montresor's shoulders, the reader is aware of the irony when Fortunato says, "the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough’’ and Montresor replies, ‘‘True true.’’ Although Montresor's plans have not yet been revealed, the reader knows with growing certainty that Fortunato will die. When Montresor and Fortunato share the therapeutic Medoc, Fortunato drinks ‘‘to the buried that repose around us,’’ and Montresor replies, "And I to your long life.'' From this point, things begin to change. Montresor's determination to hold himself as unlike Fortunato slips, and he becomes more like him with every step, as the wine works its effect on both of them. "The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc.’’ Previously, Fortunato has twice taken Montresor's arm to steady himself as they walk. Now Montresor returns the gesture,"I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.’’ When they reach the end of the final passageway, Poe presents a flurry of twos: two men in ‘‘the interval between two of the colossal supports’’ confronted with ‘‘two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet.'' But as soon as Montresor fastens the padlock on the chain around Fortunato's waist, the two are one. Now, when Fortunato speaks, Montresor echoes his words."The Amontillado!’’ Fortunato cries out, and Montresor replies, ‘‘True, the Amontillado." "Let us be gone,’’ says Fortunato, and Montresor replies, "Yes, let us be gone.'" 'For the love of God, Montresor!’’ cries Fortunato. "Yes," Montresor says, ‘‘for the love of God!’’ Montresor becomes unnerved when Fortunato abruptly stops the game, when he refuses to speak any more. "I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient.’’ Why does Montresor wish Fortunato to keep speaking? Why does he shine his torch inside, hoping for a response? It is when he gets no answer except "only ajingling of the bells'' that his heart grows sick. The most chilling moment in the story happens, surely not coincidentally, at midnight (the time when the two hands of the clock are in one place), when the two men transcend human speech and communicate their oneness in another voice. Fortunato begins it with "a succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form.’’ At first, Montresor does not know how to respond to this communication. He moves ‘‘violently back,’’ hesitates, trembles. He waves his rapier around, fearing that Fortunato is coming for him, but is reassured at the touch of the solid walls. ‘‘The thought of an instant,’’ the realization that Fortunato is tightly bound, makes Montresor feel safe, and his reaction is dramatic and bizarre: "I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I reechoed I aided I surpassed them in volume and in strength.’’ It is difficult to imagine the sounds produced by two men, enemies and opposites, hundreds of feet underground howling at midnight in a damp stone chamber. Surely the volume and the echoes would not yield two distinct voices, but one grotesque sound. For that moment, the two are Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado" 15
  16. 16. one. After the wall is completed, fifty years pass before Montresor tells the story. What has he learned in the intervening years? Has he felt remorse? For most of the story, Montresor's language is clear and direct, although the formality of nineteenth-century speech may seem difficult to modern readers. In the story's opening paragraph, told fifty years after the crime, the language is uncharacteristically convoluted and opaque: "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.'' Most readers pause over these lines, stopping to sort out the redresser and the redressed from the redressee. If the roles are confusing, it is because in Montresor's mind the lines between avenger and victim are no longer distinct. When Montresor speaks the story's last line, "In pace requiescat'' ("rest in peace’’), is he speaking of Fortunato or of himself? By the end of the story, the two are so connected that it is all the same. If Poe did intend the two men to be read as twins or doubles, what can he have meant by it? Critics have been pondering this question for over a century and a half. Daniel Hoffman, in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, explores Poe's theme of "the fate of the man haunted by his own double, his anima, his weird.’’ When one of Poe's protagonists is wrestling with guilt, Hoffman explains, he sometimes "doubles his character and then arranges for one self to murder the other by burying him alive. In repeatedly telling stories of murderous doubles ( ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart," "William Wilson,’’ and others), Poe was attempting to deal with his own demons, his own repressed guilt. Poe biographer William Bittner claims that Montresor and Fortunato "are two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ For Betina Knapp, author of a study titled Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘‘shadow figure emerges as a personification of the narrator's hostile feelings and thoughts, symbolizing the repressed instincts of the personality.’’ In his criticism and his daily life, Poe "felt himself striking back, at those forces in society or particularly individuals who might have wronged him.’’ Characters encountering and slaying their doubles are found throughout history and throughout the world, from Aristotle's story of a man who could not go out without meeting his "double'' to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader in Yoda's cave, killing him, and seeing that the face beneath the mask is his own. The Germans have a name for the phenomenon doppelganger, meaning "double walker'' and psychiatrists have recorded thousands of accounts of people who believe that they have actually encountered mirror images of themselves, usually late at night. Like other archetypal images, the encounter with the double, the other side of oneself, is a powerful image that has attracted and repelled for centuries. Poe anticipated modern psychology with its id, ego and superego by showing through his stories that the monsters outside are nothing compared to the monsters we carry within us. Source: Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" Edgar Allan Poe used the enclosure device, whether an actual physical enclosure or an enclosure alluded to on the level of image and metaphor, in a highly artistic way. In much of his fiction, and specifically in ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ (1846), the device helps to focus the action, assists in plot development, and has a profound impact on the main character, often affecting his personality. In his essay "The Philosophy of Composition'' Poe remarked, ''A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture.’’ A ‘‘circumscription of space,’’ that is, an enclosure, I consider to be any sort of physical confinement that restricts a character to a particular area, limiting his freedom. That Poe intended this confinement to have a certain power over narrative action is indicated by the phrases ‘‘insulated incident’’ and ‘‘the force of a frame to a picture.’’ But confinement Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 16
  17. 17. in Poe's fiction, I will argue, also has power over a character and often causes him to do things he would not ordinarily do. Such is the case, I believe, with the tale ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’ Montresor, the narrator, it will be remembered, unlike the narrators in other tales (such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) who have murdered their victims and then tried to conceal their bodies, does succeed in concealing his crime, but it has so obsessed his memory and imagination that fifty years after the act, he is able to render an exact, detailed description as though it occurred the previous day. Like the narrator in "The Black Cat,'' Montresor uses an enclosure to conceal his victim, but Poe places more emphasis on it in "The Cask of Amontillado'' by making it a vault which Montresor fashions himself, within his own family catacombs under the city—an enclosure within a series of enclosures. One might argue that Poe uses the same device in ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ for the narrator in that tale conceals his wife's body within a wall of his cellar. The main difference lies in the fact that in "The Cask of Amontillado'' Poe centers the entire plot on the journey through the catacombs and into the vault in which Fortunato is finally walled up. In the former tale, Poe, while concentrating on the narrator's neurosis throughout the tale, dramatizes the main enclosure at the climax. In "The Cask of Amontillado,’’ the enclosures are more directly related to the narrator's neurosis. The journey of Montresor and Fortunato through the catacombs becomes gloomier and more ominous with each step. Montresor relates: "We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs... .'The nitre!' I said; 'see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—"It is nothing,' he said; 'let us goon.'’’ Furthermore, Montresor's language in the following passage emphasizes the enclosure: We passed through a range of low arches ... and ... arrived at a deep crypt.... At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall... we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. When Fortunato, at Montresor's urging, enters this tiny "interior crypt'' in search of the Amontillado, Montresor quickly chains him to the granite wall and begins ‘‘to wall up the entrance of the niche.’’ Montresor's last comment and his description of the enclosures indicate a certain relish for the plan, its locale, and the task of walling up his victim. He even pauses at one point to hear more precisely Fortunato's clanking the chain and to take pleasure in it: "The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones.’’ As the narrator in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum'' is the victim of the enclosure, greatly fearing the pit and its unknown horrors, Montresor in this tale is the homicidal victimizer, fully aware of the horrors of enclosure, enjoying them, and scheming to make them as terrifying as possible. In spite of his quick and effective work, Montresor pauses twice more before he finishes. The first pause occurs when Fortunato releases a ‘‘succession of loud and shrill scream." "For a brief moment I hesitated—I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess: but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.’’ The frantic screams of Fortunato momentarily disturb Montresor, until he is reassured by the thought of the locale—the enclosures—and ‘‘the solid fabric of the catacombs.’’ Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 17
  18. 18. The second disturbance comes when he is nearly finished. He thrusts the torch through the remaining aperture and lets it fall: ‘‘There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up.'' At this crucial instant, Montresor tells us, his "heart grew sick’’; of course, he is quick to assure us it is because of ‘‘the dampness of the catacombs.’’ Although Montresor is obviously fascinated by the deadly enclosure, and uses it with satisfaction in walling up Fortunato, he also experiences moments of horror while within it. In this story, then, enclosure has a dual aspect. While it is Montresor's main source of delight in planning his revenge, it does create momentary flashes of panic which almost disrupt his carefully planned revenge. One wonders if on a subconscious level Montresor is not trying to isolate, and enclose, a part of himself and a neurosis he hates—symbolized by Fortunato: Once his victim is walled up and Montresor's neurosis is in a sense buried and out of sight, he believes he will probably regain some measure of sanity. But, of course, Poe does not allow him this luxury, for the conclusion of the tale clearly indicates that even though the long dead Fortunato may be buried, Montresor is still obsessed with the details of the crime and can recite them complete and intact after half a century. Like the narrators of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ Montresor buries his victim on his premises. But Montresor goes much deeper than the other two narrators, deeper than his cellar, deeper even than his family's subterranean burial ground, though he passes through it to reach the tiny crypt he has prepared for Fortunato. It seems as if he is reaching deep into the past, into his ancestral heritage, to deal with his current problem, Fortunato's insult. Like the other two narrators, he could have disposed of his victim in any number of ways having nothing to do with an enclosure, but he used burial and chose his family's catacombs, even his ancestors' bones, to conceal Fortunato's body: ‘‘Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones.’’ His act indicates that though he wants to be rid of his victim, he wants him to remain within reach, that is to say, among the bones of his ancestral past. Fortunato, as a character, has little importance; he becomes significant as the object of Montresor's self-hatred, of the projection of his guilt for his aristocratic family's decline. Montresor says at one point, when his unwitting victim remarks on the extensiveness of the vaults, that ‘‘the Montresors .. . were a great and numerous family,’’ implying that they once were but no longer are; and Poe is careful not to mention any immediate family of Montresor. Like the other two narrators, Montresor, while taking pains to conceal his crime, must needs be found out. However, unlike the other narrators, whose crimes are discovered shortly after they are committed, Montresor's is not found out until he informs the reader of it fifty years afterward. So, although the crime appears successful, the revenge is not, because Montresor has not freed himself from guilt—a fact indicated by his rendering of details which have no doubt obsessed him through every day since the deed. His final words, "In pace requiescat!’’, underscore Poe's irony. Montresor's rest has surely been troubled. Why he has preferred anonymity, while sustaining this obsession during those years, might well be explained by his unconscious fear of the guilt he would, once it was found out, consciously have to accept. And having to accept it might drive him insane, as it does the narrator at the conclusion of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ or it might force him to acknowledge the depth of his evil and truly repent—something Montresor is loath to do—as it does the narrator of "The Black Cat,’’ who reveals to the reader that he ‘‘would unburthen [his] ... soul’’ before he dies. It appears, then, that Montresor is making Fortunato a scapegoat and symbolically enclosing Fortunato, his own identity, in a hidden crypt deep within his own soul—out of sight but certainly not forgotten. A similar view has been expressed by Charles Sweet: ‘‘Montresor's premature burial of his mirror self in the subterranean depths of his ancestral home (house equals mind in Poe) paints a psychological portrait of repression; the physical act of walling up an enemy in one's home duplicates the mental act of repressing a Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 18
  19. 19. despised self in the unconscious.’’ Montresor, Sweet continues, ‘‘buries alive his scapegoat.... In Montresor's unconscious mind he is not murdering Fortunato, but burying/ repressing that dilettantish side of himself he can no longer endure, that side symbolized by Fortunato.’’ The enclosure Poe uses in "The Cask Amontillado,’’ in addition to being the focal point of the plot, providing a journey through a series of enclosures, and adding a sense of pervasive gloom and oppression to the tale, also becomes the central symbol in my interpretation. These enclosures and the crypt in which Montresor buries Fortunato are metaphors for Montresor's obsessive mind and the complex relationship between the reality of his disturbed inner self and his controlled, rational outer appearance. They emphasize his neurosis and symbolize the guilt he wishes to bury. Thus, Poe's enclosures in this enigmatic tale provide it with a thematic unity and an artistic integrity it might not otherwise have. Source: Leonard W. Engel, ‘‘Victim and Victimizer: Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in Interpretations: A Journal of Idea, Analysis, and Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 26-30. "The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies Although readers of "The Cask of Amontillado'' have long been aware of the ironies that operate throughout to give special intensity to this tale, an awareness of its Roman Catholic cultural and theological materials adds to the irony and transforms clever trick into an episode of horror. Throughout the entire episode—its planning, its execution, and its confession—Monsieur Montresor made self-conscious use of cunning, plotting, and irony to wreak his revenge. The French nobleman tells his story of the calmly calculated murder of his Italian aristocratic friend Fortunato. The crime had been perfectly executed; for fifty years now the act has gone undiscovered. Every smallest detail had been so carried out as to satisfy the criminal's two-fold purpose: Montresor would have revenge without himself getting caught; and, as the avenger, he would make quite sure "to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’’ Thus he followed the motto on his coat of arms: ‘‘Nemo me impugne lacessit.’’ In the course of the narrative we learn how Montresor used the cutting edge of irony to give a surgeon's neatness to his work and to secure the greatest possible delight for himself. With consummate evil he chose the carnival season for his crime. The carnival in question was Carnevale, a three days' festivity ending at midnight on Ash Wednesday, during which time, in Catholic cultures, people have one last fling of merriment before beginning the somber Lenten fast. The season afforded a perfect setting for murder: servants were out of the house celebrating, the noise and frenzy of the crowds allowed the murderer to go about his work unnoticed, the high spirits of the season provided an appropriately ironic background for Montresor's playful antics with his victim, and the somber, religious quiet that settled upon the city at midnight was just the right mood for Fortunato's final hour. How appropriate that the victim go to his death in a catacomb while devout Christians were about to gather in churches above to receive blessed ashes, symbol of their mortality, and to hear the warning, "Remember man, you are dust and to dust you will return.’’ But overlying the story is another irony that Montresor is not conscious of, an irony that the reader is only vaguely conscious of, although its presence is felt quite strongly in several places. Basic to appreciating this irony is a correct understanding of sacramental confession. When Montresor killed Fortunato, he counted upon the judgment of God as the final instrument of revenge. He killed his enemy by leading him into sins of pride, vanity, and drunkenness; and without a chance for confession, Fortunato presumably would have been damned with no capacity for striking back in time or eternity. Moreover, to assure his own salvation, Montresor relied upon the power of sacramental confession for himself. For Montresor is not simply speaking to a sympathetic friend; he is also making his deathbed confession to a priest. "The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies 19
  20. 20. Montresor misses the irony of the phrase at the beginning of his confession, ‘‘You, who so well know the nature of my soul,’’ with its implication that the penitent had been confessing to this priest for some time, but had not been confessing all his sins. In theological terms these were bad confessions because the efficacy of the sacrament hinges upon the sincere disposition and sorrow of the penitent for all his sins. When this is lacking, the sacrament, instead of being an instrument of salvation, becomes an instrument of damnation. Such confessions were sins of sacrilege. Montresor, therefore, has been confessing in vain. And even now, when on his deathbed Montresor confesses all his sins, he is deluded in thinking himself forgiven. He seems to be unaware, but the reader is not, of the gleeful tone of his confession. Montresor is taking delight in the very telling of his crime—hardly the disposition of a truly repentant sinner. Thus, the "In pace requiescat'' with which he finishes his confession is ambiguous. We can see it as a superficial expression of sorrow or a quiet satisfaction in the lasting, unchallenged completeness of his revenge. Here, surely, is the irony of a confession without repentance, an irony that makes the entire plan double back upon the doer. Finally, Montresor's most serious miscalculation was his total failure to understand the ineffable power of God's mercy. Apparently he had forgotten a fundamental lesson of his catechism, that a person in serious sin—even without sacramental confession—can turn to God, out of love, and in an instant make an "act of contrition'' that can win immediate pardon. Fortunato's plea, ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor,’’ was directly addressed to his murderer, but implicitly it was a prayer expressing faith in the power of God's loving-kindness. To this, Montresor was deaf; and when the prayer received a merciful hearing in heaven, Montresor's stratagems backfired. Fortunato, lucky as his name suggests, was saved; Montresor, damned. The final effect is one of horror. The ultimate irony is that of a puny creature playing games with God. Source: James F. Cooney, '‘‘The Cask of Amontillado': Some Further Ironies,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 195-6. "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ one of Edgar Allan Poe's richest aesthetic achievements, certainly deserves more searching analysis than it has received. To be sure, critics and anthologists have almost unanimously expressed admiration for the tale; still, they have rarely attempted to find in it a consistently developed and important theme. Indeed, most criticism of the story has the definitive ring that one associates with comments on closed issues. Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, pronounces Poe's little masterpiece "a powerful tale of revenge in which the interest lies in the implacable nature of the narrator.’’ More recently, Edward Wagenknecht asserts that the tale derives its value from Poe's ‘‘absolute concentration upon the psychological effect.’’ A few adventurous critics, however, have tried to define the theme of "The Cask of Amontillado'' in terms of a split or division within the psyche of the narrator-protagonist or within the author himself. Edward H. Davison has ably related the story to Poe's broad concern with "the multiple character of the self.’’ Davidson concludes that the narrator, Montresor, is capable of becoming two distinct beings with little affinity to each other: '"The Cask of Amontillado' ... is the tale of another nameless I [sic] who has the power of moving downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brutish or physical self and then of returning to his intellectual being with his total selfhood unimpaired.'' On the other hand, William Bittner, unconcerned with the division within Montresor, speculates that the "two characters are two sides of the same man—Edgar Poe.’’ Unfortunately, Davidson weakens his judgment by ignoring the role of Fortunato, and Bittner's opinion, if valid, would tell us more about Poe than about Poe's story. Unfortunately, too, Richard Wilbur makes no mention of the tale in ‘‘The House of Poe,’’ a brilliant and perhaps seminal essay in which he characterizes the ‘‘typical Poe story’’ as made up of ‘‘allegorical figures, representing the warring "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 20
  21. 21. principles of the poet's divided nature.’’ In their emphasis upon the psychological "effect’’ produced by ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ Wagenknecht and others imply that Poe's story has a great deal of art and little or no meaning. In fact, Wagenknecht goes so far as to categorize it with those tales from which Poe deliberately "excludes the ethical element.'' Once drained of "thought'' or serious implication, ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ becomes little more than a remarkably well-executed incident, a literary tour de force whose sustained excitement or horror justifies its existence. It degenerates into an aesthetic trick, a mere matter of clever manipulation, and cannot be considered among Poe's major triumphs. Perhaps it is this sense of the work's empty virtuosity which leads W. H. Auden rather loftily to belittle it. I believe that "The Cask of Amontillado'' has discouraged analysis because, uniquely for Poe, it makes its point in a muted and even subtle manner that seems deceptively like realistic objectivity. Proceeding in a style that Buranelli calls "unencumbered directness,'' the narrator does not, like the protagonist in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ loudly and madly proclaim his sanity; unlike the main characters in ‘‘The Imp of the Perverse,’’ ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ and ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ Montresor never suffers the agonizing hallucinations that lead to self-betrayal; moreover, he does not rant, like William Wilson, about his sensational career of evil or attempt, as does the nameless narrator of "Ligeia," an excruciating analysis of his delusions and terrors. Instead, he tells his tale with outward calm and economy; he narrates without the benefit of lurid explanations; he states facts, records dialogue, and allows events to speak for themselves. In short,"The Cask of Amontillado'' is one of Poe's most cryptic and apparently noncommittal works. Yet, though the tale restricts the amount of meaning directly divulged, almost all of its details fuse into a logical thematic pattern. Action and dialogue that at first appear accidental or merely horrific appear, upon close examination, to have far-reaching connotative value. The usual critical presumption that Montresor and Fortunato provide the narrative with a convenient Gothic "villain" and "victim'' must give way to the view that they are well-conceived symbolic characters about whom Poe quietly gives a surprising amount of information. In addition, the setting and pervasive irony of the tale do not merely enhance the grotesque effect Poe obviously intends; more importantly, they contribute their share to the theme of the story. In short, "The Cask of Amontillado'' is a work of art (which means it embodies a serious comment on the human condition) and not just an ingenious Gothic exercise. I should like to suggest that Poe's tale presents an ironic vision of two men who, as surrogates of mankind, enter upon a "cooperative'' venture that really exposes their psychological isolation. This theme of mock union disguising actual self-seeking intimates that the placid surface of life is constantly threatened and belied by man's subterranean and repressed motives. It also implies that, no matter how beguiling the surface may seem, human division is more "real" than union. Of course, Poe clearly shows the human affinities that make even a pretense of union possible and convincing, but he also reveals his characters' refusal to recognize or acknowledge the binding quality of those affinities. Moreover, as my consideration of the story will seek to prove, Poe suggests that man's inability to act upon these affinities leads to the self-violation that ultimately destroys him. All the major facets of "The Cask of Amontillado’’—action, the calculated contrast between Montresor and Fortunato, and the setting—emphasize the characters' relatedness and differences. In the first of the main incidents, the two men come together only to maintain their psychological sepa-rateness; in the second, they undertake an ostensibly common journey, but pursue divergent goals; and in the denouement, when the murderer should emancipate himself from his victim, he becomes psychically attached to him. Moreover, Poe's almost obtrusive point-by-point comparison of the two characters demonstrates that they possess unusual similarities concealed by incompatibilities. Even the masquerade setting subtly establishes the fact that the two men reverse, during the carnival season, the roles they play in "real" life: Fortunato, normally an affluent and commanding man, dwindles into a pitiful dupe, and Montresor, who considers himself a "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 21
  22. 22. persecuted, social nonentity, takes control of his enemy's destiny and is controlled by it. The masquerade setting is essential to the meaning of "The Cask of Amontillado.'' Through it, Poe consciously presents a bizarre situation in which the data of the surface of ordinary life are reversed. Fortunato, we learn, impresses the narrator as a ‘‘man to be respected and even feared,’’ a man capable of highhandedly inflicting a ‘‘thousand injuries’’ and "insults." His social importance is more than once insisted upon: ‘‘You are rich, respected, admired, beloved.’’ In addition, as a member of a Masonic lodge, he obviously patronizes Montresor: ‘‘You are not of the Masons ... You? Impossible! A mason?'' With a touch of self-important loftiness, he admits that he has forgotten, perhaps as something trivial, his companion's coat of arms. Yet, Fortunato's supremacy dissolves in the carnival atmosphere: though he is a man of wealth and status, he is, for all the abilities implied by his success, an extremely vulnerable human being whose nature is revealed by his costume, that of a fool or jester: "The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.’’ Absurdly off guard, he has obviously surrendered to the camaraderie of the occasion; he has drunkenly and self-indulgently relaxed his customary vigilance for the trusting mood of the season. Montresor, on the other hand, is bitterly obsessed with his fall into social insignificance. He announces to Fortunato, with a submissiveness that masks his monomaniacal hatred, "You are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter.’’ At another point, when his besotted and insensitive companion expresses surprise at the extensiveness of his vaults, he answers with pride: ‘‘The Montresors ... were a great and numerous family.’’ We must remember, too, that his plan to kill Fortunato, deriving from family feeling and a sense of injured merit, is in accordance with his coat of arms and motto. He regards himself as the vindicator of his ancestors, "The human foot d'or’’ about to crush the ‘‘serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.’’ In other words, Fortunato's prosperity has somehow become associated in his mind with his own diminution. His decision to destroy his enemy, pointedly explained in his motto, ‘‘Nemo me impune lacessit," ("No one insults me with impunity’’) indicates that he suffers from a deep dynastic wound. Montresor, then, feels that Fortunato has, by ignoring his ancestral claims, stolen his birth-right and ground him into disgrace. Yet, during the carnival, he is transformed into a purposive man to be feared. Intellectual and implacable, he designs his evil as if it were a fine art. He facilely baits his powerful adversary with a false inducement; he lures him deeper and deeper into the sinister vaults with cajolery and simulated interest in his health. The preposterous case with which he manages Fortunato demonstrates how completely he has become the master of the man who has mastered and humiliated him. In the subterranean trip toward the fictitious amontillado, Montresor momentarily regains his birthright and reestablishes his family's importance by giving dramatic substance to the meaning of his coat of arms and motto. Of course, we must ask later whether his triumph is delusive and fleeting or whether, as Davidson declares, he returns to the real world with his "total selfhood unimpaired.'' The carnival world, then, inverts and grotesquely parodies the actual world. From the beginning of the tale, when Montresor explains the evil motive behind his geniality toward Fortunato, Poe presents a picture of life in which man is bifurcated and paradoxical, dual rather than unified. We see that casual contacts, like Fortunato's meeting with Montresor, may be deeply calculated stratagems; people who greet each other as friends may be enemies; words of kindness and invitation may be pregnant with deceit; helpless gullibility may be allied with talent and firmness; and love may cloak hatred. Everywhere, opposites exist in strange conjunction. One recalls William Wilson's bewilderment as he contemplates the fact that his benign Sunday minister can "double'' as a cruel teacher on weekdays: "Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution.’’ Clearly, the oppositions and disharmonies contained within individual men project themselves into the world and turn it into an ambiguous arena where appearances and words belie themselves. Every aspect of life is "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 22
  23. 23. potentially deceptive because it has a double face. If universal unity once existed, as Poe speculates in Eureka, such harmony no longer prevails in a world where all is only remotely akin but more immediately heterogeneous and in conflict. Significantly, even in the midst of his bitter feud with his namesake, William Wilson entertains the "belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago—some point of the past even infinitely remote.’’ Yet, he dismisses this insight as a ‘‘delusion’’ and persists in his enmity toward the second William Wilson. It is not surprising, then, that man's internal discord recreates "reality" in its own image and that single words, like single persons, contain diverse and incompatible meanings. Montresor's wine "vaults,'' which contain the precious amontillado, become Fortunato's burial "vaults." Fortunato boasts of his membership in a Masonic order, but it is the narrator, who as a different kind of mason, walls up and suffocates his enemy. For Fortunato, Montresor's coat of arms and motto are mere emblems, hardly to be given a second thought, whereas for the latter they are spurs to malevolent action. In one of the most brilliant scenes in the story, the entombed victim's shrieks express his agony; the murderer imitates these shrieks, but his clamor is a gleeful parody of pain. In fact, both men once utter almost identical sentences to express the contrary emotions of terror and joy: ‘‘Let us be gone." "Yes", I said, ‘‘let us be gone.’’ ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor!" "Yes," I said, "for the love of God.’’ Poe's irony in ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ extends to many details that invest life with an eerie inscrutability. Fortunato, the fortunate man, is singled out for murder. Montresor, ‘‘my treasure,’’ locks within himself a treasure of ancestral loathing which impoverishes his nature. Both characters, it soon becomes evident, are intoxicated, one with wine and the other with an excess of intellectualized hatred. Fortunato, on his way to certain death, ironically drinks a toast to "the buried that repose around us.’’ Before his last colloquy with his companion, Montresor expresses a perverse impulse of his being and calls Fortunato "noble.’’ The irony of the last words of the tale, ''In pace requiescat,'' is only too evident. So too is the irony of the method by which the narrator, in ordering his servants to remain at home during his announced "absence," insures that they will be away while he perpetrates his crime safely at home. Obviously, the ironic pattern of "The Cask of Amontillado'' adumbrates a world caught in a ceaseless masquerade of motive and identity. Nevertheless, Poe does not naively cleave the world into two irreconcilable antinomies. Instead, he demonstrates that Montresor's dissimulation is an unnatural and unbearable act. For in spite of himself, the narrator's self-divisive behavior affronts his own need for a unified psyche and conscience. After all, he really longs to be what Fortunato is and what he and his family once were. In short, the major ironies of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ are that Fortunato represents Montresor's former self and that the latter deludes himself in imagining that he can regain his "fortune'' by the violent destruction of his supposed nemesis. Ironically, he turns his energy and genius against himself, against the memory of his lost eminence. Once again, then, Montresor resembles Fortunato in being the dupe of his own crazed obsessions; in the truest sense, he is as much a fool as the wearer of motley. Contrary to Davidson's belief that the narrator recovers his total selfhood after the crime, Montresor is broken on the wheel of a world in which violence is simultaneously an internal and external action. It is in accordance with this principle that the narrator in ‘‘The Black Cat'' feels that in hanging his pet he is "beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.’’ Montresor no more achieves his revenge than his victim comes into the possession of the amontillado. In the final analysis, like so many Poe characters, Montresor fails because he cannot harmonize the disparate parts of his nature and, consequently, cannot achieve self-knowledge. His mind overrules his heart as much as Fortunato's drunken goodfellowship—his trusting heart—has repealed his intellect. Fortunato's ironically meaningful words, ‘‘You are not of the brotherhood,’’ imply, on the symbolic level of the tale, that Montresor lives too deeply in his plots and stratagems to have any warm affiliation with mankind; still, though he prides himself that he can commit murder with impunity, he cannot completely eradicate those subconscious feelings which establish—no matter what he wills or intellectually devises—his relatedness to "The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 23
  24. 24. Fortunato. Just as William Wilson's refusal to recognize his "conscience" does not eliminate it or deprive it of retributive power, Montresor's intellectualization of his actions does not divest them of their psychological consequences. He remains so divided against himself that, as he consummates his atrocity, it recoils upon him; the purposefulness with which he initiated his plan almost immediately distintegrates. As his victim screams, he momentarily hesitates, trembles, and unsheathes his rapier. With unwitting self-betrayal, he refers to the buried man as the "noble Fortunato.'' In addition, he confesses that, at the final jingle of his foe's bells, "my heart grew sick.'' Even though he obtusely attributes his sickness to an external cause, ‘‘the dampness of the catacombs,’’ his rationalization should deceive no alert reader. And lastly, his compulsively detailed rehearsal of his crime after fifty years demonstrates that it still haunts and tortures his consciousness. The ending of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ leaves little doubt as to the spiritual blindness of the protagonist. Montresor resembles many Poe characters who, with no self-awareness, project their own internal confusions into the external world. William Wilson, for example, never understands that his conflict with his strange namesake represents an inner turmoil; with almost his last breath, he declares that he is "the slave of circumstances beyond human control.’’ Certainly, the narrator of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ fails to discover that the insistent heartbeat he hears and cannot escape is his own rather than that of the murdered old man. To cite a final example, the main character in ‘‘The Black Cat’’ never suspects that his mutilation of Pluto is an objective equivalent of his own serf-impairment. Montresor, I am convinced, should be included in Poe's gallery of morally blind murderers; he does not understand that his hatred of Fortunato stems from his inner quarrel with ‘‘fortune’’ itself. Undoubtedly, Fortunato symbolizes Montresor's lost estate, his agonizing remembrance of lapsed power and his present spiritual impotence. With a specious intellectuality, common to Poe's violent men, Montresor seeks to escape from his own limitations by imagining them as imposed upon him from beyond the personality by outside force. But the force is a surrogate of the self, cozening man toward damnation with all the brilliant intrigue Montresor uses in destroying Fortunato. Source: James W. Gargano,'"The Cask of Amontillado': A Masquerade of Motive and Identity,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, October, 1966 - July, 1967, pp. 119-26. The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast 1830s: An Anti-Masonic political party is formed in the United States, intended to counterbalance the supposed political influence of the Free and Accepted Masons. It is the first important third party in United States history. 1990s: With six million members but no central authority, the Free and Accepted Masons are found in nearly every English-speaking nation, including a large membership in the United States. They are more widely known for social activities and for community service than for political activity. 1840s: Poe, who did not graduate from college, is able to read Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and expects his readers to have basic competence in Latin and French. 1990s: Most American college graduates have taken two years or less of foreign language study. 1840s: Writers are concerned that Americans do not have the attention span required to read long works of fiction. Poe writes, "We now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.’’ 1990s: Educators and parents complain that young people, raised with televisions and computers, do not like to read for long periods, but prefer to get their information in short, visual forms. Politicians complain that voters will not listen to complex arguments and ideas, but are interested only in ‘‘sound bites.’’ The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast 24